Freddi Price finds a stretch of road through the Shenandoah mountains uncluttered by modern life, save the road itself:
The Road to Somewhere
By Freddi Price
There is a road high in the ancient Appalachian Mountains that travels unfettered by any signs of commercial life (or any signs at all of modern human life, save for the road itself) like those that carpet the highways found anywhere else. No billboards, shops, motels, trucks, travel plazas or the like. It runs for hundreds of miles from the Shenandoahs in north-central Virginia to the southwest corner of North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. It is a blissful ribbon along the ridge tops that connects the two national parks at those respective terminuses.
This road (or two roads by name, anyway) is a contiguous, simple two-lane blacktop with no shoulders. It gives away immediately at the edge of the pavement to the pristine landscape of lush wooded mountaintops, home to some of the most diverse forests and oldest geologic exposures on earth. It is as frequently bathed in the clouds as it is in the sun. A road of profound beauty and peace, it was built for the sole purpose of giving the travelers upon it, pleasure. It is a scenic highway. A national park in the sky. In the Shenandoahs it is known as Skyline Drive. It seamlessly becomes The Blue Ridge Parkway as it turns south and eventually enters North Carolina. It is a road with which I had the pleasure of becoming familiar while growing up and recently had the pleasure of traveling on for a week or so. It was for me a kind of pathway into the past. It was, for me, a perfect road for it connects and travels to places I want to go, and it does so in a way that I prefer—away from the trappings of modern life, in the solitude of nature. Slow-going, sublime. It is like hiking in your car.
My father was well known among a certain crowd. “Gricers” they are called—or ferroequinologists, as the philologist and pleonastic sesquipedalian in me likes to say.
I have inherited, no doubt, my lifelong love of meandering along this nation’s quieter byways from my father who spent much of his free time doing just the same, in search of the scenes of glorious Nature and also in search of, somewhat ironically, steam locomotives. It is ironical because the Age of Steam maybe a onetime symbol of man’s conquest over nature, but for my father, it was a symbol of a simpler, dying past, a past that is now quite and sadly dead. He lead me onto those roads through the mountains and hidden countryside, his camera in hand, seeking to preserve the old world he grew up in. At home, he would show us his striking photographs, in slide form, of back road excursions, along with images of the final years of steam through these regions. It was his main pursuit and occupied much of his free time before taking on a family.
My father was well known among a certain crowd. “Gricers” they are called—or ferroequinologists, as the philologist and pleonastic sesquipedalian in me likes to say. A gricer, so you know, is a train-chaser or railroad fanatic, a lover of trains. They are called gricers for the similarity of these train hunters to grouse hunters. I’m not sure if there is a quality unique among them that is shared with grouse hunters exclusively. It seems any hunter would do. But “gricer” it is. My father lived and breathed the sights, sounds and smells of those steamy iron horses. These slideshows and the photographic trips with him would instill in me an adoration of the countryside and lost corners as well as of the more famous grand vistas of our land. It’s in the blood, so to speak. I also learned from him the (analog) photographic arts, although I recall that with some shame now, for the only camera I had with me on this present trip was my phone, much to my father’s would-be dismay. However, he died right before my eyes and in my arms years ago and thus was freed from any future dismay for the duration.
So, having all too brief a time to do a thorough job of it, but nevertheless heading south from New York to visit family and friends, I became enrapt at the supreme beauty of the countryside edging this road. Even immediately out of the metropolis, the Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania country seems endless and lush, broken only by the mighty Delaware river, then the Susquehanna. Further afield there are the great rivers Monongahela, the Potomac, the Shenandoah, the James; the names themselves worthy of navigation (except perhaps for “the James”). They are broad, bold, grand, navigable rivers with green forested tracts clambering over their banks, everything so very well alive and growing, unlike rivers (with exceptions, of course) in California (where I have spent much and currently spend some of my time) with its rivers and arroyos of dry dirt and brown desert.
Of course, there is a mightiness and profound beauty there as well. Here though, in the Appalachian East is a lush, dripping and teeming landscape, roiling with flowing rivers, lush greenery and flowers, soft and fragrant. And it’s all fed with plentiful rains and glorious sun and with a terrestrially appropriate Spring-Summer-Autumn-Winter pattern. For sure there are other, totally appropriate patterns in different parts of the world, but growing up in the Northern Hemisphere middle latitudes, this is just what feels right, smells right, looks right.
To go out West, which even now I am doing and am always desirous of, has always been like going to another planet for me – with all the excitement and adventure which that entails, but I do love it as well. I am like many Americans, a rootless cosmopolitan, grown up in a land not really “mine” with no deep roots and a yearning for moving on, always to see more, always wanting something else. At home in a variety of surroundings, I feel any land could be my home as much as I’ve ever had one. But whenever I return to these great old, old eastern mountains and rivers of America, I seem to sense something very deep indeed, as if transcending my actual, biological history and tapping into some primal belonging or meaning…
A summer storm had bowled through western Virginia the night and morning before I rolled down the Shenandoah Valley. The clouds that remained were rich and full of personality and dappled the late afternoon sun which spilled through the irregular lattice, illuminating the western flank of the Shenandoah Mountains. I was even more enrapt for the solitude of driving alone. This is a trip that, in my younger days, I did quite often, alone and wondering from the small-town southern homes of my family to the cities of the North. It is a trip that, now having stationed myself in New York of late, when I get to take it, is quite an emotional journey back to a land that feels to me like a dream (the kind where you find yourself in what you feel to be a strange land, yet you somehow know it like no other).
The Blue Ridge Parkway comes out of the Shenandoahs and crosses over to North Carolina, into the range for which it is named. Quickly the road tracks up the ridge tops of the Blue Ridge, seldom dropping below 3,000 feet. Up here, life is pristine. All you can see are the green tops of the mountains and the lay of their valleys. It seems the perfect altitude to mask what towns lie down there, the larger ones being off and away from this more craggy terrain. One can almost imagine the land, this very populated land, as it would be without population. This is not entirely true, of course; the irony not being lost on me that the only reason one can have this particular experience is the fact that there is a very well laid and man-made road that allows for it, a road that, for sure, can be sometimes crowded with people—on holidays, “leaf season” and the like. But for me, this time, it was not. It was more like being the last man on earth.
“Hell is other people,” Sartre wrote. And though his meaning was perhaps more complex, the very simple, more obvious and perhaps misanthropic sense is one that I can sometimes quite agree with.
“Hell is other people,” Sartre wrote. And though his meaning was perhaps more complex, the very simple, more obvious and perhaps misanthropic sense is one that I can sometimes quite agree with—present company, my friends, and you possibly eight readers excluded! I am, it seems, a paradoxical misanthrope, holding the general masses largely in contempt while feeling an almost unassailable love for my friends and the sustainably growing communities that are made up of the, say, three degrees of separation of their existence. But I digress—and possibly disclose too much of myself!
The North Carolina section of the parkway was the sight and scene of many of my young adult firsts in the field of the passionate arts, in the form of: altered states of consciousness, epiphanic insights, naked communion with nature and, similarly, that with Woman (well one woman anyway – a girl really, and me just a boy). Whenever I got my first bit of American Freedom in the form of an automobile (first a Valiant, then a Satellite – both Plymouths, both 1971), I turned up onto this road to seek out the heights of those exaltations; to find myself by losing myself. I rode it down now in a similar state, wanting for nothing except, obviously, erstwhile youth and, perhaps, the satisfaction of a total possession of this land (or, maybe the same thing, possession by it), this being a common misappropriation of the feeling of total Love, believing as we do that to love something we must own it, devour it. We are not content to simply and un-distractedly be with it, among it, and become it. Despite this unsatisfied wanton desire, the desire to eat my own eyes for the total consumption of the seeing of such gratuitous beauty, I was satisfied. And in Heaven. For, as that great poet once said (….I forget who exactly), “Heaven is a place on Earth.” And here it was!
Green, so green it was! A green so green that all the green of the world seemed to have abandoned all else in order to be green only here! A green so green that Green itself must have been green with envy of it’s own Greenness! A self-perpetuating green that brooks no other color save that it be borne out of Greenness! Green. Were there a god, it would be green. Green as nature’s skin.
Into it and through it, taking my time, headed to friends and then family, I stopped as much as I drove, hiking off to find my memories of time lost. Occasionally, on the turnoffs and trailheads, I would come upon others, a noisome impediment to the enjoyment and communing, quaquaquaqua, especially when arriving in bulk, quaquaquaqua, in mega-bus quaquaquaqua and gathering for their horrid Christian pep-talks before heading out into godless nature en masse (Well, that happened once, anyway). Certainly the last thing anyone needs in the woods is church, borne out of cloistered, sexless fear of nature as it is, after all! Ech!
Bushwhacking, then, away so as to avoid the path, through blooming rhododendron and trillium, I was led by some more primal compass to find a waterfall on a creek where, now near three decades ago (!), I enjoyed some of my earliest encounters with the more primal drives. Love, physical love, expressed in nature, among nature, will always be one of the holiest of sacraments. It would seem to complete that urge, mentioned above, to somehow devour/be devoured by all this beauty. To engage in it with naked vulnerability is to become of it, to dissolve into its… if you will permit me, its ness—that is, the “ness” of being-ness, nature-ness, one-ness, all-ness, together-ness. Of course, this is an experiential pleasure and preferably private. No doubt, it wouldn’t do as an observational pleasure. No one wants to come upon a couple of damn hippies in the depths of rut in the middle of their afternoon hike with the kids. All the more reason to avoid other people when the opportunity permits. There was no opportunity here for me (to rut, that is) this time, and so resisting the urge to make love to the loamy earth itself, I had to remain satisfied with the more spectative enjoyment of Nature’s pornography and make my way. But I found it: my way and the waterfall.
Down and back, the road led on through dell and knoll, holler and heath, forest after green forest. I came down to see friends who live on its slopes, family at its end. Through the mist of a morning, I later climbed up from Skyline to its “highest point,” an escarpment jutting through the clouds, to watch as those clouds rose to their own demise as the noon sun boiled them off to a brilliant afternoon. While coming down, again in a daze, I came upon a single black bear, my size (that is, my size if I were to be, say, cut off at the knees and then hunched over on-all-fours in a fur coat), rummaging in the underbrush. He/she raised nose and muzzle at my approach and scurried back to a safer distance and on.
And on I went. Never enough time, but nonetheless I took my time returning north to New York, preferring small roads through the northern Chesapeake Bay environs in order to visit a town that figured into the final delirious days of E.A. Poe and the symbolic subject of a play I had recently seen in New York. For no other reason than this (well, and its fantastic name!), I side-tripped to Havre de Grace and then up the Susquehanna River, through the farmlands of northeastern Maryland and eastern PA. Even in these well-used, industrialized, populous lands from which most folks feel a need to flee West-ward or Big City-ward there is still country that harkens one to the rapture of Nature, sublime and glorious!
And back to Gotham and on a plane and off to California where, even now, I have headed out for the rapture of its wilderness, already walking through its crackly, dry redwood forests, trading poison ivy for poison oak, feeling and knowing and being awestruck by its beauty, but somehow not entirely remembering it.
We may be at the brink of a new great loss, what with meltings and extinctions and mass-scale changes as the doom-seers say. But being on a brink, we can still look back and down the road from which we came and we can choose to return down it to grab what we forgot, or to disappear among its side-lands where we have enjoyed ourselves, or simply to remember what we don’t want to loose and then choose how to proceed, if to proceed. There is joy and sorrow on both sides of this brink, to be sure.
Read about Freddi’s road trip along the eastern seaboard in N13.